503 U.S. 140 (1992), 90-6861, McCarthy v. Madigan

Docket Nº:No. 90-6861
Citation:503 U.S. 140, 112 S.Ct. 1081, 117 L.Ed.2d 291, 60 U.S.L.W. 4191
Party Name:McCarthy v. Madigan
Case Date:March 04, 1992
Court:United States Supreme Court

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503 U.S. 140 (1992)

112 S.Ct. 1081, 117 L.Ed.2d 291, 60 U.S.L.W. 4191




No. 90-6861

United States Supreme Court

March 4, 1992

Argued Dec. 8, 1991


While a federal prisoner, petitioner McCarthy filed a damages action under Bivens v. Six Unknown Fed. Narcotics Agents, 403 U.S. 388, alleging that respondent prison officials had violated his Eighth Amendment rights by their deliberate indifference to his needs and medical condition resulting from a back operation and a history of psychiatric problems. The District Court dismissed his complaint on the ground that he had failed to exhaust the Federal Bureau of Prisons' administrative remedy procedure, which, inter alia, includes rapid filing and response timetables to promote efficient dispute resolution, but does not provide for any kind of hearing or for the granting of any particular type of relief. The court then denied McCarthy's motion for reconsideration, rejecting his argument that exhaustion was not required because he sought only money damages, which the Bureau could not provide. The Court of Appeals affirmed.

[112 S.Ct. 1084] Held: Exhaustion of the Bureau of Prisons' administrative procedure is not required before a federal prisoner can initiate a Bivens action solely for money damages. Pp. 144-156.

(a) Exhaustion serves the twin purposes of protecting administrative agency authority and promoting judicial efficiency. Where Congress specifically mandates, exhaustion is required. Otherwise, the federal courts must exercise sound judicial discretion, determining whether to require exhaustion by balancing the individual's interest in retaining prompt access to a federal judicial forum against countervailing institutional interests favoring exhaustion. Individual interests have weighed heavily where resort to the administrative remedy would occasion undue prejudice to subsequent assertion of a court action, where there is some doubt as to whether the agency is empowered to grant effective relief, or where the administrative body is shown to be biased or has otherwise predetermined the issue before it. Pp. 144-149.

(b) Congress has not required exhaustion of a federal prisoner's Bivens claim. And, given the type of claim McCarthy raises and the particular characteristics of the Bureau's general grievance procedure, McCarthy's individual interests outweigh countervailing institutional interests favoring exhaustion. The procedure's short, successive filing deadlines and the absence of any monetary remedy heavily burden a

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petitioning inmate's individual interests. In contrast, while the Bureau has a substantial interest in encouraging internal resolution of grievances and in preventing the undermining of its authority by unnecessary resort of prisoners to the federal courts, other institutional concerns do not weigh heavily in favor of exhaustion. The Bureau's alleged failure to render medical care implicates only tangentially its authority to carry out the control and management of the federal prisons, and the Bureau does not bring to bear any special expertise on the type of issue presented for resolution here. Nor are the interests of judicial economy advanced substantially by the grievance procedure, which does not create a formal factual record of the type that can be relied on conclusively by a court for disposition of a prisoner's claim on the pleadings or at summary judgment without the aid of affidavits. Pp. 149-156.

914 F.2d 1411 (CA10 1990), reversed.

BLACKMUN, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which WHITE, STEVENS, O'CONNOR, KENNEDY, and SOUTER, JJ., joined. REHNQUIST, C.J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, in which SCALIA and THOMAS, JJ., joined, post, p. 156.

BLACKMUN, J., lead opinion

Justice BLACKMUN delivered the opinion of the Court.

The issue in this case is whether a federal prisoner must resort to the internal grievance procedure promulgated by the Federal Bureau of Prisons before he may initiate a suit, pursuant to the authority of Bivens v. Six Unknown Fed. Narcotics Agents, 403 U.S. 388 (1971), solely for money damages. The Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit ruled that exhaustion of the grievance procedure was required. McCarthy v. Maddigan, 914 F.2d 1411 (CA10 1990). We granted certiorari to resolve a conflict among the Courts of Appeals.[1] 499 U.S. 974 (1991).

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While he was a prisoner in the federal penitentiary at Leavenworth, petitioner John J. McCarthy filed a pro se complaint in the United States District Court for the District of Kansas against four prison employees: the hospital administrator, the chief psychologist, another psychologist, and a physician. McCarthy alleged that respondents had violated his constitutional rights under the Eighth Amendment by their deliberate indifference to his needs and medical condition resulting from a back operation and a history of psychiatric problems. On the first page of his complaint, he wrote: "This Complaint seeks Money Damages Only." App. 7.

The District Court dismissed the complaint on the ground that petitioner had failed to exhaust prison administrative remedies. Id. at 12. Under 28 CFR Part 542 (1991), setting forth the general "Administrative Remedy Procedure for Inmates" at federal correctional institutions, a prisoner may "seek formal review of a complaint which relates to any aspect of his imprisonment." § 542.10.[2] When an inmate files a complaint or appeal, the responsible officials are directed to acknowledge the filing with a "signed receipt" which is returned to the inmate, to "[c]onduct an investigation," and to "[r]espond to and sign all complaints or appeals." §§ 542.11(a)(2) to (4). The general grievance regulations do not provide for any kind of hearing or for the granting of any particular type of relief.

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To promote efficient dispute resolution, the procedure includes rapid filing and response timetables. An inmate first seeks informal resolution of his claim by consulting prison personnel. § 542.13(a). If this informal effort fails, the prisoner

may file a formal written complaint on the appropriate form, within 15 calendar days of the date on which the basis of the complaint occurred.

§ 542.13(b). Should the warden fail to respond to the inmate's satisfaction within 15 days, the inmate has 20 days to appeal to the Bureau's Regional Director, who has 30 days to respond. If the inmate still remains unsatisfied, he has 30 days to make a final appeal to the Bureau's General Counsel, who has another 30 days to respond. §§ 542.14 and .15. If the inmate can demonstrate a "valid reason for delay," he "shall be allowed" an extension of any of these time periods for filing. § 542.13(b).

Petitioner McCarthy filed with the District Court a motion for reconsideration under Fed.Rule Civ.Proc. 60(b), arguing that he was not required to exhaust his administrative remedies, because he sought only money damages which, he claimed, the Bureau could not provide.[3] Record (Exh. 7). The court denied the motion. App. 14.

The Court of Appeals, in affirming, observed that, because Bivens actions are a creation of the judiciary, the courts may impose reasonable conditions upon their filing. 914 F.2d at 1412. The exhaustion rule, the court reasoned, "is not keyed to the type of relief sought, but to the need for preliminary

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factfinding" to determine "whether [112 S.Ct. 1086] there is a possible Bivens cause of action." Ibid. Accordingly,

"[a]lthough the administrative apparatus could not award money damages . . . administrative consideration of the possibility of corrective action and a record would have aided a court in measuring liability and determining the extent of the damages."

Ibid., quoting Goar v. Civiletti, 688 F.2d 27, 29 (CA6 1982) (emphasis in original). Exhaustion of the general grievance procedure was required notwithstanding the fact that McCarthy's request was solely for money damages.


The doctrine of exhaustion of administrative remedies is one among related doctrines -- including abstention, finality, and ripeness -- that govern the timing of federal court decisionmaking. Of "paramount importance" to any exhaustion inquiry is congressional intent. Patsy v. Board of Regents of Florida, 457 U.S. 496, 501 (1982). Where Congress specifically mandates, exhaustion is required. Coit Independence Joint Venture v. FSLIC, 489 U.S. 561, 579 (1989); Patsy, 457 U.S. at 502, n. 4. But where Congress has not clearly required exhaustion, sound judicial discretion governs. McGee v. United States, 402 U.S. 479, 483, n. 6 (1971). See also Patsy, 457 U.S. at 518 (WHITE, J., concurring in part) ("[E]xhaustion is `a rule of judicial administration,' . . . and unless Congress directs otherwise, rightfully subject to crafting by judges."). Nevertheless, even in this field of judicial discretion, appropriate deference to Congress' power to prescribe the basic procedural scheme under which a claim may be heard in a federal court requires fashioning of exhaustion principles in a manner consistent with congressional intent and any applicable statutory scheme. Id. at 501-502, and n. 4.


This Court long has acknowledged the general rule that parties exhaust prescribed administrative remedies before

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seeking relief from the federal courts. See, e.g., Myers v. Bethlehem Shipbuilding Corp., 303 U.S. 41, 50-51, and n. 9 (1938) (discussing cases as far back as 1898). Exhaustion is required because it serves the twin purposes of protecting administrative agency authority and promoting judicial efficiency.

As to the first of these purposes, the exhaustion doctrine recognizes the notion, grounded in deference to Congress' delegation of authority to...

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